Review: Chagall and the Russian Avant-Garde at the AGO.

November 24, 2011 § Leave a comment


It is the ever popular and whimsical Marc Chagall that immediately draws people to the AGO’s Chagall and the Russian Avant-Garde, yet it is the inclusion of works by Chagall’s Russian contemporaries that makes the show truly noteworthy. The exhibit provides much needed context for Chagall’s seemingly idealistic work. Unlike the AGO’s previous blockbuster, AbEx, the Chagall and the Russian Avant-Garde exhibition investigates the work of this great painter, rather than merely displaying works without context or curatorial comment.

It is not until the very end of the gallery narrative that we see the massive, whimsical, and colourful pieces that we associate with Chagall. Prior to this, we wind our way through his earlier, more exploratory paintings, displayed beside the works of his Russian contemporaries. Thus the often and easy interpretation of Chagall as a Paris based painter disassociated from the Russian art scene is dispelled; instead we see works that in their own way participate with, and defend the works of, his Russian contemporaries.

Chagall is quoted on the wall of the gallery, stating that, “the sun of art shone only in Paris.” This, however, seems contradictory when we enter what I consider to be the most spectacular room in the exhibit, which features the works of his Russian contemporaries. There are Tatlin-like constructivist sculptures by the Stenberg brothers, photographs by Rodchenko, plaster models by Malevich, and Vertov’s “Man with a Movie Camera” film. It is only upon seeing these striking, serious, and largely political works that one realizes the appreciation Chagall had for the Russian influences and themes that he shared with his contemporaries, but also how unique and deeply personal the work of Chagall really is.

Chagall’s work is generally perceived as being less radical when compared to the work of Malevich or the Stenbergs, but this exhibit helps to reveal the true depth of his work. Rooted in folklore and religious ideology, Chagall’s work resists classification in any one art movement. By viewing the artist’s paintings alongside his contemporaries (notably, his Russian, rather than Parisian ones) we can appreciate the complexity of Chagall’s work, which challenges the line between dreamlike idealism, and stark realism.

Chagall and the Russian Avant-Garde runs until January 15 at the AGO.

– Georgia Erger

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